DULUTH, Minn. — Cirrus Aircraft on Monday announced plans to transform the former Northwest Airlines maintenance base into a new research and development facility dubbed the “Center of Excellence in Innovation.”
The Duluth Economic Development Authority recently agreed to sell the 189,000 square foot building, sitting on 39 acres, to Cirrus for $1. As part of the sale agreement, Cirrus has pledged to invest significantly in the facility and create more jobs in Duluth.
The company is required under this agreement to invest at least $7 million in the building.
“Investing in this facility is part of our strategy to grow our presence in Duluth, advance our local community and create a world-class center for innovation,” Cirrus Aircraft CEO Zean Nielsen said in a statement. Press release. “The Innovation Center is set to become the epicenter of personal aeronautical engineering and attract top talent from around the world.”
Cirrus Aircraft aims to begin renovations by September. The site of the future Innovation Center was formerly the Maintenance, Repair and Operations Building, which housed AAR and Northwest. The hangar is configured to service much larger aircraft, Nielsen explained, so that equipment will be removed to make the space more suitable for Cirrus operations.
The additional offices, innovation labs, experimental space and structures should be ready to transfer its 300 current engineers, scientists and technicians to the new facilities by the end of December, he said. The additional space will free up 70,000 square feet for future expansion.
“From concept to idea, execution becomes much shorter and much tighter because they’re all under one roof and in the same building,” Nielsen said. “This investment reinforces our commitment to continued innovation. It’s obviously a very big building for all our engineers. The fact that we’re doubling over Duluth is just a testament to the fact that we love the city, and we love our people here. We want to continue to grow our presence and environment for our wonderful staff here.
Cirrus is already Duluth’s largest manufacturing employer, with more than 1,200 people on its payroll. He promised to maintain the size of this local workforce and create at least another 80 more engineering jobs in the city over the next three years.
To attract and retain talent, Cirrus focuses on the financial, physical and mental well-being of current and new employees, Nielsen said. In recent years, salaries have increased, various fitness clubs are sponsored by the company and corporate events are returning to Cirrus, he added. The company also partners with Lake Superior College and the University of Minnesota-Duluth for tuition support and continuing education credits for employees.
“Duluth has less than 3% unemployment. Being able to find all the workforce in all the different functions is a challenge in Duluth. It’s a rather tight labor market. At the rate we are growing, we need to look at multiple locations. The majority of our employees in Duluth work in production. We have opened engineering and service centers elsewhere in the country,” Nielsen said.
Cirrus has operations in five other states, but Duluth remains its largest place of employment.
Cirrus was purchased by China Aviation Industry General Aviation Co., a division of state-owned Aviation Industry Corp. of China in 2011, and some have questioned Duluth’s decision to subsidize a company owned by Chinese government interests. At a recent meeting, 1st District Councilman Gary Anderson asked if the company’s ownership issues should give the city pause in its decision to sell the airbase at such a discounted price.
Noah Schuchman, chief administrative officer of Duluth, defended the deal, saying Cirrus is “a company with decades of history in the city of Duluth, and it employs a significant number of people in the community. What I can tell you is that this transaction will result in millions of dollars of investment in a currently empty municipal facility.
“Ninety-five percent of all aircraft parts come from American contractors. We pay taxes here. We are based in Baraboo, Wisconsin. As far as I’m concerned, we’re as American as apple pie,” Nielsen said.
The former air base at Duluth International Airport has remained mostly vacant since May 2020, when its last tenant, AAR Corp., ceased aircraft maintenance, repair and overhaul operations, due to the pandemic turbulence in the airline industry.
The empty facility had been a financial drain on the Duluth Economic Development Authority, which owned the building, with those costs amounting to about $57,000 a month, according to Chris Fleege, director of the planning and economic development division of Duluth.
Fleege thinks the company’s continued investment in new local facilities bodes well for the future and said, “It really strengthens Duluth as a headquarters.”
“We love Duluth and all it has to offer. From a test facility perspective, when you test an aircraft, you will be able to withstand the harsh environment of the Duluth winter. You will certainly build an aircraft that can handle just about any place our customers would like to store or fly their aircraft. It’s just one of many factors,” Nielsen said.
Duluth City Council voted unanimously Sept. 12 to support the sale of the former air base to Cirrus.
On August 24, the Duluth Economic Development Authority approved the agreement authorizing the sale of the former Northwest Airlines facility with a 60-year ground lease, releasing ownership of the facility from DEDA and the ongoing financial burden. The sale will save the city more than $600,000 a year in maintenance, operating and tax costs, according to a statement.
In a statement, Duluth Mayor Emily Larson said: “Duluth and Cirrus Aircraft have a long and significant history of being great to and for each other, and the site of the Center for innovation is no different.
“For Cirrus Aircraft, expanding their footprint in their hometown of Duluth means the world to us because it further elevates Duluth in the world of aviation,” Larson said. “We are excited to support innovation while reallocating this asset.”